Major Tom is a fictional astronaut who was introduced in the influential 1969 David Bowie song Space Oddity, from his album of the same title. Space Oddity itself is an account of a space flight by Major Tom and its fallout.

Space Oddity is told as a dialogue between two characters: Ground Control and Major Tom. The song opens at the launch: Major Tom is being prepped, the countdown begins, and Ground Control congratulates Tom on making it into space. But when Tom begins speaking, we know immediately that something is wrong.

Major Tom experiences what could well be described as a new sort of birth, but a harsh, mechanical birth. His mother is the Earth, the space capsule the surrogate womb. The door opens, and he goes through it — and he is born. He is in a new world, with none of the comfort of the womb: he remarks on how he floats peculiarly, recalling images of babies being in liquid until the moment of their birth. Looking behind, he sees the Earth, great and blue (more water imagery), but cannot return.

The song’s focus then shifts: Tom says his goodbyes, and cuts the circuit. His last words to Ground Control, “Tell my wife I love her very much…” (“—she knows!”) are sung in a dreamy tone — you can almost hear Tom smiling. After cutting the circuit, he repeats an earlier stanza, with slightly different wording: he is no longer dependent on the ship that brought him into space, but is floating past the Moon to a new life.

Major Tom rejects the machines that have flung him into space. His wording makes it very clear that he has no trust at all in technology: his ship is nothing better than a tin can, and he’s sure that it can find its own way and complete the mission without him. I’ve always found it very powerful that Major Tom does not die. His circuit dies, and cuts him off with Earth, but he himself is intact and human.

This is reinforced in Bowie’s 1980 song Ashes to Ashes on the album Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps). Major Tom sends a message back to Earth telling them that he’s happy, that he loved and lived all he needed to on Earth and has no regrets. It’s later remarked that everybody knows that Tom is no better than a junkie, “strung out in heaven’s high” — the message is that he was made into a monster on Earth. We’re even told that mothers warn their children not to turn out like Major Tom.

Plenty of other sources have mentioned Major Tom. It’s thought that Rocket Man (I Think It's Going To Be A Long, Long Time), by Elton John and Bernie Taupin, is meant to be another perspective on Major Tom. Although the song does not use his name, it is a very similar narrative about a character with a very similar set of thoughts. David Bowie even went so far as to sing the phrase “Oh, Rocket Man!” during a live performance of Space Oddity well after both songs were released.

Another perspective on the song was given by Peter Schilling's 1983 song Major Tom (Coming Home), from the album Error in the System. The song effectively tells the same story as Space Oddity, but with a more narrative style (as opposed to the dialogue in Space Oddity). The song even echoes some of the phrasing of Space Oddity: "Far beneath the ship, the world is mourning." Although Bowie did not make it clear that Major Tom was still alive until the release of Ashes to Ashes, Major Tom (Coming Home) does end with the clear message that the astronaut is still alive.

In an episode of The Venture Bros., the opening of the show is almost entirely composed of lyrics from Space Oddity. Characters named Major Tom and the Action Man were introduced to the show entirely for the sake of having this bit. However, rather than sharing the theme of escape, the lyrics were used for a decidedly more depressing message. The episode opens with Major Tom testing an experimental ship over the Bermuda Triangle, but after a malfunction, he makes the decision to take his hands off the controls, say his goodbyes, and plunge into the ocean. Once again, the words “Tell my wife I love her very much…” (“—she knows!”) hit with the greatest impact.

Somewhere out there, Major Tom is still floating through space. I hear he’s happy.


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